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Reviews - Cold War

Cold War

Reviewed By Stephen Pye

Cold War
Cold War
There can be no prizes for guessing the historical milieu of Pawel Pawlikowski's 'Cold War', which evokes the midcentury geopolitical freeze with all the intricate, delicate decay of the Polish auteur's Oscar-winning 'Ida'. But the 'cold war' at the centre of this film is one between hearts, not territories: Skipping with swift agility across European borders and a 15-year time frame, Pawlikowski sketches an intense long-term love affair between two mismatched Polish musicians whose relationship is defined less by affection than a mutual, mistrustful, latently violent hostility. Loosely inspired by the marriage of the director's late parents, for whom the film is mournfully dedicated.

The opening reels promise more of a folk patchwork — in multiple ways, as we open directly on a village band's strident, ragged rendition of a plaintive traditional song. "Open up, my love, for fear of God," they warble, anticipating unrelated romantic desperation to come. It is 1949, and the performance, delivered bluntly to camera in cramped Academy ratio, turns out to be for the benefit of Wiktor and Irena, jaded musical directors talent-scouting for a theatrical folk ensemble. Based on the real-life Mazowske troupe, founded in the wake of World War II and still performing today, the intent behind the act is to celebrate regional culture, packaging and polishing rural talent for international stages. Wiktor, however, is more interested in finding a star: An urbane pianist with a passion for jazz, his eyes light up when Zula (magnificently played by Joanna Kulig) enters the audition room. She's plainly not the backwater ingenue she claims to be, and seems about as authentic singing folk music as Britney doing bluegrass, but her talent and charisma are undeniable; within two years, she's lighting up the ensemble to packed houses across Europe, and having a torrid if not fully candid affair with Wiktor. When the troupe’s career-minded manager Kaczmarek effectively sells out to the Soviets, retooling the show as a Stalinist propaganda act, Wiktor bails, while the more ideologically complacent Zula stays on.

That's merely the first boy-loses-girl stage in a love story that drifts across the Continent as loosely and erratically as the characters drift through their own lives, buffeted alternately by political circumstance and personal impetuosity. The film often leaps across several years in a single cut, as Wiktor and Zula reunite and separate multiple times over the course of a decade: Lost both with and without each other, neither one seems able to progress with their relationship in perennial, cyclical limbo.

If it's initially difficult to invest emotionally in Wiktor and Zula's relationship, that's because they have similar trouble themselves — it's as we see how difficult it is for these two artists to give themselves to each other that we begin to ache for them. ("Believe in yourself," he implores her. "I do — it's you I don't believe in," comes the pithy, telling reply.)

The soundtrack, ranging from darkly mesmerizing folk curiosities to torchy blues standards to a climactic, ethereal wave of Glenn Gould- interpreted Bach, is perhaps the most invaluable below-the-line contribution to a film crafted with almost eerie exactitude across the board. Working once more with cinematographer Łukasz Żal, his finely wrought black-and-white compositions, each frame is an exquisite tile of milk-and-malt melancholy. The characters chafe against this visual purity; the contrast in the image intensifies as their fragile relationship darkens and rots. 'Cold War' is a soberly moving study of the disappointment and insecurity that can blossom from supposed renewal: It’s a romance in which new beginnings and endings can be hard to tell apart.

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Keswick Film Club won the Best New Film Society at the British Federation Of Film Societies awards in 2000.

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